The shock waves from the March 2011 disaster in northeastern Japan are still being felt, almost two years since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake killed almost 20,000 people, destroyed dozens of coastal communities, and caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Aid agencies, police, and troops were still struggling to get vital supplies to survivors of the tsunami when full force of the nuclear crisis became apparent, and prompted a fundamental rethink of Japan’s hitherto unshakeable faith in atomic energy.
In the two years since the crisis, Japan has experienced a complete nuclear shutdown, a limited restart, a planned phaseout, and now, a tentative return to an atomic future that few could have imagined while 150,000 people were forced to flee radiation in Fukushima.
Minor accidents and safety scares aside, the preceding decades had done little to unsettle the “nuclear village” – the power utilities, industry regulators, politicians, and scientists who had hailed nuclear as the answer to Japan’s energy needs since the 1960s.
An economy built on nuclear energy
With precious few energy sources of its own, Japan has traditionally been heavily dependent on Middle East oil. Its vast geothermal potential remains largely untapped due to bans on developing hot springs located in national parks, although it is expected to vastly increase its geothermal output in the coming years.
For successive postwar governments dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party [LDP], nuclear was the only viable supplement to Middle East oil. Before March 11, 2011, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors provided about a third of its total energy needs; plans were in place to raise that share to more than 50 percent by 2030 with the construction of new reactors.
But in the space of a few days, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi left that bold atomic project in tatters, as a traumatized nation struggled to come to terms with the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years earlier.
The explanation for the meltdown given by the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power [Tepco]– that it had been hit by a disaster on a scale that could never have been anticipated – quickly unraveled.
Reports emerged that Tepco’s own safety officials had warned that the protective seawall located off Fukushima Daiichi was too low, given the region’s historical susceptibility to powerful earthquakes and tsunami. Experts wondered why the plants’ backup power supply, whose failure triggered the meltdown, had not been placed so it could withstand even the most violent seismic assault.
Predictably, a Tepco investigation into the accident found little fault with the utility’s level of readiness. An independent report commissioned by the national Diet came to a very different conclusion. The meltdown, it said, was the result of “collusion” between the nuclear industry, the then Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency [NISA], and compliant politicians who had given plant operators free reign over safety and disaster preparedness.
In the months after the disaster, public opinion began to turn against Japan’s much-derided nuclear village. One by one, the country’s remaining reactors were switched off to undergo regular maintenance checks; none could be brought back online until they had passed vigorous “stress tests” to gauge their ability to withstand natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
In May of last year Japan experienced life without nuclear energy for the first time for almost 50 years when the last working rector was closed for safety checks. Later that year, the then prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, approved the restart of two reactors, amid warnings from the business lobby that power cuts would slash productivity and damage Japan’s export-led economic recovery.
Shortly before his party was defeated in last December’s general election, Noda appeared to have converted to the non-nuclear cause, announcing a complete phaseout of atomic plants by 2040. The phaseout was to be accompanied by a push to generate 30% of Japan’s energy needs from renewables and develop the sustainable use of fossil fuels.
Today, as Japan’s northeast coast prepares to mark the second anniversary of the disaster, the nuclear debate has taken another dramatic turn.
The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose LDP led Japan’s ambitious nuclear development in the postwar period, promptly dropped his predecessor’s commitment to a phaseout. The economic and environmental costs of a zero-nuclear energy policy were too great, he said, for a modern economy under increasing pressure from regional rivals China and South Korea.
The cost of importing liquefied natural gas [LNG] and fossil fuels has placed extra strain on Japan’s economy, contributing to its first trade deficit for more than 30 years in fiscal 2011.
It has also raised doubts over Japan’s ability to meet internationally agreed climate change commitments. Those doubts were confirmed recently when the government said it would announce a new target later this year for cutting emissions, having conceded that it would not be able to honor the current 25 percent cut by 2020 from 1990 levels.
As other countries reconsider their appetite for the atom, Japan is edging towards an energy mix that will include a role for nuclear power. But with a slight majority of Japanese still supporting a complete phaseout, Abe has promised there will be no return to the days when the industry had a practical carte blanche over safety regulations.
Crucially, measures set out by the Japan’s new nuclear regulation authority – a replacement for the discredited NISA – include the construction of a secondary command center that would enable workers to control emergency cooling systems in the event of an emergency, and higher seawalls to protect plants from tsunami. Abe has not ruled out the construction new reactors, but insists none will be built on seismically active fault lines.
The public remains to be convinced that Abe’s LDP, a traditional ally of the nuclear industry, can create a nuclear future free from fear.
Opponents of nuclear power will have time to consider their response. The new safety standards could take years to enforce, and at great cost to Japan’s already fragile finances. That has caused disquiet among conservative politicians and business leaders, who argue that a stable, cheap energy supply is essential to economic recovery.
But in post-Fukushima Japan, any attempt to water down regulations will be all but impossible. If Japanese voters are to coexist with atomic power, they will settle for nothing less than absolute guarantees of safety, and an industry free of the corruption and collusion of the past … for that way lies nuclear madness.